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George Mason president: Some donations ‘fall short’ of academic standards

A statue of George Mason stands in the heart of George Mason University's Fairfax campus on Dec. 14, 2010. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The president of George Mason University said Friday that some financial gift agreements accepted by the school “fall short of the standards of academic independence” and raise questions about donor influence at the public institution.

The disclosure by George Mason President Ángel Cabrera came as a student organization sued seeking greater transparency regarding the school’s ties to private donors, including the prominent and controversial financial backer Charles Koch.

In an email sent to faculty, students and staff Friday night, Cabrera said some gift agreements accepted by the public institution in Northern Virginia “raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters.”

“The agreements did not give donors control over academic decisions, and all but the earliest of these agreements explicitly stated that the final say in all faculty appointments lies in university procedures,” Cabrera wrote. “Yet these agreements fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”

The gifts supported faculty positions in economics, and the agreements granted donors “some participation in faculty selection and evaluation,” Cabrera said. The pacts were accepted between 2003 and 2011, and all but one have expired. Agreements ­obtained by The Washington Post show that, in some cases, committees that helped select professors included members designated by a donor.

The email from Cabrera does not directly name the gift agreements that were troubling, but a George Mason spokesman confirmed that the note was related to funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, among other donors. Koch, a billionaire industrialist, is a backer of conservative political causes and a major donor to universities.

At George Mason and on other campuses throughout the country, concerns have been raised about whether generosity from the Charles Koch Foundation constrains academic freedom.

Janine Gaspari — a 20-year-old junior at George Mason and member of Transparent GMU, a student group that has sought access to private donor agreements — said she felt angry and betrayed when she read Cabrera’s email.

“But I also felt really good about the fact that the university is really being pressured to the point where they’re put in a position that they can’t be silent on this anymore,” Gaspari said.

The Washington Post obtained a batch of agreements from a George Mason spokesman Friday night. Several of those agreements involve the Mercatus Center, a free-market research group that is based at the university but is an independent organization.

“It’s now abundantly clear that the administration of Mason, in partnership with the Mercatus Center and private donors, violated principles of academic freedom, academic control and ceded faculty governance to private donors,” said Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor of human development and family science at George Mason.

Letiecq, who is president of George Mason’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said she was bothered by language that indicated donors had power in faculty hiring and a voice in decisions about whether professors remain at the school.

“These are all gross violations of academic freedom,” she said. “Faculty hiring and faculty retention are not the business of donors, in any way, shape or form.”

The released documents include agreements that involve Peter Boettke, a professor of economics and philosophy at George Mason. Boettke, a tenured faculty member, referred questions Saturday to Daniel Rothschild, executive director of the Mercatus Center.

“Regarding the faculty Mercatus helped bring to Mason a decade ago, the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Rothschild said in an email. “All of these scholars have added tremendously to the Mason community through their research, service, and teaching.”

In a letter published online Friday night, the Charles Koch Foundation sought to address questions about grant agreements involving George Mason that were reached from 2006 to 2009.

John Hardin, the Koch foundation’s director of university relations, wrote that the agreements have “evolved over time” and that the organization is committed to academic freedom.

“These old grant agreements at George Mason University did not allow us to cause the university to hire certain professors, nor did they allow us to make decisions regarding the curricula or research that professors pursued,” Hardin said in the letter. “These agreements did allow us to have a say in recommending candidates who were considered for the faculty positions we supported.”

Once a candidate was proposed, Hardin wrote, the “standard university hiring procedures” began. The foundation no longer enters into donor agreements with that level of input, he wrote.

“To be clear, we champion academic freedom and do not seek to influence the hiring practices of university departments nor have input on curricular or research decisions,” he wrote.

The release of the documents and the disclosure from Cabrera come amid a legal effort by Transparent GMU, which has sued the George Mason University Foundation. The case explores whether the organization is a public body.

The two sides met Tuesday for a trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court. A judge has not issued his decision in the matter.

Transparent GMU’s attorney argued that the George Mason University Foundation is an entity of the university and performs a university function. The foundation’s management of private funds is a form of public business, Transparent GMU maintains.

Attorneys for the foundation argued that it is private and not part of the public school. As such, it is not subject to Virginia’s public records laws, they say.

IRS records show that the Charles Koch Foundation has directed millions to the George Mason University Foundation in recent years. The Koch Foundation’s ties to the university drew attention in 2016, when a gift of $10 million was among those that led to the renaming of the law school for deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

More recently, in March, George Mason ­announced a $5 million Koch Foundation donation to the economics department that will be used to create three faculty positions. George Mason released the agreement for the gift at that time, which noted that the selection and evaluation of the professors was at the university’s discretion and must follow university procedures.

Cabrera has been president at George Mason since 2012, so the agreements he mentioned in his email were reached before his arrival. Since he came to the school, he wrote, he has “made it a priority to have all gift agreements clearly uphold our commitment to academic independence.”

“As I have stated before, gifts may be earmarked for programs, scholarships or faculty support, but donors may not determine what is taught, what student is funded, or what professor is hired,” he wrote. “If these terms are not acceptable to donors, the gifts are kindly declined.”

But Letiecq, the George Mason professor, said faculty members have been pushing Cabrera for information for years, trying to figure out whether academic freedoms were being violated at the school.

“And now we clearly understand that they were,” she said. “And so, the next question is, what are they going to do about it?”